The Real All Americans combines the tales of two merging chapters in American history, a time when football is leaping out of the dirt, and the Western Frontier is disappearing. The book reads like a “who’s who” of history. It also introduces us to and establishes Olympian Jim Thorpe, a multi-sport player once considered the world’s greatest athlete, and legendary coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner. Abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, Indian War Chief Sitting Bull and future president Dwight D. Eisenhower also play significant roles in the book.
Author Sally Jenkins weaves a history lesson together beginning with a bloody massacre in 1866 and bookends the tale with a battle on the football field in 1912, Indians versus the Army. In 1866, members of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes lured the U. S. military into a trap. It proved a fierce and violent coup to ward off annexation of their land. Chieftain American Horse slit someone’s throat in the battle, and other natives removed scalps then gallantly rode home to brag of their victory. The Indians won the battle that day but not the war. Despite their recalcitrant stance against the expansion of the U. S. Territory, change was coming. American Horse nearly decapitated a man to display his staunch opposition against being forced into a reservation. He would later buy a suit from Saks and send nearly a dozen of his offspring to a U. S. government run boarding school. To demonstrate the transitory times the country faced, Jenkins masterfully walks us through history. By 1890, the first Transcontinental Railroad is completed. It runs through once serene land the natives called home. The tracks have dissected their frontier, carving out even smaller allotments then what the government issued to the natives.
The infamous “cowboys and Indians” battles have nearly disappeared like the Western frontier. At this time, football began to take hold of the American psyche. The brutality of the sport provided a new outlet for men to showboat their masculinity. America is at a crossroads. It knows it must live amongst the natives, the people whose land the government has taken. American leaders know some of the Indians will seek to live outside of the oppressive conditions of the reservations. They question how they will live civilly with the “savages”. Fighting is no longer the answer. Assimilation becomes the solution.
But it is not fully embraced by either side. Did natives have the mental capacity to “learn the way of the white man”? Indians feared losing their centuries old mores. Army officer and abolitionist Richard H. Pratt sought the government’s approval to launch the social experiment. He had what he believed to be success in absorbing and “curing” the hardest of Indian resisters when he ran a military prison in Florida. Pratt opened The Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania hoping to strike gold again. He Christianized the students and cut their hair to make them similar to the white man.
While Pratt’s legacy is mixed, Jenkins makes it clear that the superintendent is fond of the students he recruited and treated them like he would his own children. Jenkins eloquently illustrates how this experiment is not without heartache and failure. For every handful of children that willingly assimilate, at least one native revolts, runs away or returns home scared and confused. Pratt thought abandoning their native tongue, denouncing violence and learning how to eat with a fork and spoon were the only ways American society would accept Indians.
A student named Plenty Horse returned to his reservation with one mission, to wipe the stain of Carlisle from his character. He killed an innocent American military member to impress his tribe. Pratt would argue he had more success stories than accounts of failure, and he attributes that the football team he begrudgingly allowed on campus. The mortal combat-like sport had captivated the nation, and Carlisle men caught the fever too. Pratt repeatedly denied his men a chance to compete telling them they would face more humiliation if they signed up to take the brutal beatings Ivy League teams loved doling out.
The Carlisle Indians had the weight of a race on their scrawny shoulders, Pratt said. Their losses would be exaggerated and their wins downplayed. But his boys did not care. In 1895, Pratt relented and granted the men permission to play on one condition; they had to leave the violence up to the other teams because the Indians were already perceived as savages. That condition was the driving force behind the Indians’ desires to play. They wanted a chance to prove they were not savages or mentally inferior to their Ivy League counterparts.
Within a year of playing the Indians embarked on an unprecedented feat, they played Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Penn consecutively. At that time in history, that would be considered a mortally dangerous schedule. Football did not have the regulations that govern it today. In 1905, the football field saw 146 deaths. Huge wedges of men would run at each other, pick up running backs and throw them, and break legs, noses and necks. The physical prowess of the other teams did not frighten Carlisle. The opposing teams grinned every time they kicked an Indian; the Indians were only allowed to grin when they got kicked.
The Carlisle Indians put up a valiant effort against the big four but lost all of the games, however that is attributed to several blatantly bad calls. The team almost upset Yale, but a referee called back what would have been the winning touchdown. It was so bad, the next day the White press wrote, “Carlisle proved it could beat 11 young Yale men, but not 11 young Yale men and a referee”. While the rag-tag team of players enjoyed several glowing reviews over the decades, the Carlisle men felt like they were denied proper credit.
A large portion of the press would attribute their victories to their White Yale coaches. Their losses, on the other hand were the inevitable evidence of their “Indian character flaws”. Despite the humiliating obstacles the team faced, the Indians progressively got better, thanks in part to the hiring of Glenn “Pop” Warner, a real gamesman. He had a taste for gambling but an even larger appetite for experimental plays and encountered equal minds when he coached the Indians. They too wanted to play the game their own way and outwit their opponents.
They changed the game when they started running around teams instead of through them, a sight no one and witnessed at that time. Carlisle started the first trick plays, hiding the ball, and they dominated the field when the forward pass was made legal. No one could stop Jim Thorpe, except Jim Thorpe. Warner said his carelessness and laziness led to losses in games the team had nearly sealed up as victories. Thorpe briefly left the school to pursue his love of baseball, which would later lead to him being stripped of the gold medals he won at the Stockholm Olympics.
Warner convinced his star to return to school for one final battle, the 1912 game against the U. S. Army, a team that had nine future generals on its roster. A young Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the backfield. In the locker room, Warner reminded his team of “Wounded Knee” and all of the other atrocities committed against their tribes. This was their time for revenge he harped. They could wage war on the football field instead of the battlefield. Of course the cadets were favored to win. Rooting against them would be “Un-American”.
Army had caught up to the Ivy League teams, and was in the midst of a four-year stretch in which they built a record of 28-5-1. The game had national implications for both teams. Army had lost only once that season, to Yale (6-0). A win over Carlisle would catapult Army to a number one ranking. The emotional and practical stakes were obvious for the Indians. The game represented their continual fight for respect. They were clearly the best offense in the country, but commentators continued to mark them with an asterisk as if they were less than a real college team.
The Indians were ready for war. They graced the field with sleek formations. Several fast forward passes combined with trick plays tomahawked the Army. Final score, 26-7. They did not just change football; they slowly changed the misconceptions of Indians. They stood up to humiliation and mockery with grace and dignity. They took beat downs and grinned, leaving spectators to question just who the “savages” really were. They claimed many victories over Ivy League schools stocked with players who descended from men who stole the Carlisle Indians’ Land.
They proved they were the Real All Americans. But their celebration would be short-lived. The team nearly imploded after the win, and Warner found himself coaching a team that no longer respected him. Thorpe had been outed as a “professional” because he played baseball for money, and he lost his gold medals. Warner knew all along what Thorpe had done, but he acted as if he had no clue. That enraged the Carlisle team, and members wrote Congress and also divulged details of Warner paying his athletes.
Warner was later asked to resign. Outside forces also erased Carlisle’s place in the history books as well. America was undergoing yet another transformation. The public now believed it was wrong to have taken natives from their homes to place them in far-away boarding schools. It was time to end the “experiment”. The little support Carlisle had left had faded. Pratt was long gone. Weaker leaders replaced him and none had a desire and commitment to the natives like Pratt. By 1918, The Carlisle Indian School had closed.